Today while browsing some documentaries, I noticed how many involved the premise "nobody would deny that Jesus existed." That idea's been percolating in my head for a while and I think today I finally realized why I object to it. Simply put: What do we mean when we talk about Jesus existing? What properties would Jesus have if he had really existed as the Bible describes?
Saying "of course Jesus existed" has as much truth to it as "of course Steve existed." There were tons of guys named Jesus running around talking about miracles and Messianic prophecies at that time, just like there are tons of Steves around. Jesus was crucified, but that's not too uncommon of a death; similarly, I could say narrow my own definition of "Steve" down to "a Steve who died of cancer." That's still pretty loose for my taste. To really say which Steve I'm talking about, I need to know Steve's last name, where he was born and when, where he lived most of his life, maybe even some info about where he worked or who he married or fathered. I can't stretch this Steve into "that particular Steve who died of cancer and who helped start Apple Computers" without a lot more evidence.
The Bible makes the mistake of giving a biography for its Messiah that is fairly specific:
* He is given a birthdate and a birthplace: about 4BCE, in Bethlehem. His birth was predicted and celebrated by visiting "wise men."
* He was baptized by someone famous in the River Jordan and lived in Egypt for a while to avoid a massacre of infants targeting him specifically.
* He began his ministry in the "15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar," which puts the date around 29CE.
* He did a bunch of interesting miracles that the Bible implies are fairly unique to him.
* He was executed by Rome around 33CE.
* He was resurrected amid a miracle involving Jewish corpses rising from the dead and running around Jerusalem talking to people; he did miracles and was seen by hundreds, and finally ascended to heaven in view of witnesses.
This, then, is the "historical Jesus" who is the man the Bible is talking about. The problem is that there's no way anybody in history can fit this bill.
Obviously, in the mists of time that separate us today from the events of 2000 years ago, there will be missing pieces of evidence, but generally what I'd want to see to prove that the Jesus of the Bible existed would be things like his parents' name on the census they supposedly traveled so far to take for Rome; accounts from these "wise men" who visited him; evidence of the massacre Herod ordered that made his family flee; temple birth records; his presence in Temple documents; contemporary letters talking about his ministry and his many miracles--from the baptism to his death; Roman court records of his trial; and contemporary accounts of his resurrection or burial. I'm not asking for a smoking gun of an autograph or a miracle preserved in stone--just a shred of historical documentation. Though a not-wholly-literate society couldn't be expected to have the sheer amount of documentation the modern era has, at least some of these should exist. Of course, none do. Not a scrap, not a shred of evidence from his actual lifetime links us to the events describing the Bible's specific Jesus.
Worse still, many aspects of the Jesus narrative can be shown to be allegorical or mythological. The census takes place at the wrong time, and there are no records of Jesus' family in them; there was no massacre of babies at Herod's command; there was no eclipse or Jewish zombie uprising at Jesus' death. Those are just the most obvious problems in considering the Bible's Jesus a real person; whole books have been written about the inconsistencies and contradictions in the actual gospels themselves that point to the Jesus story as being just a gradually-growing body of myths.
But there was a reason the New Testament describes Christ this way. Let's not forget that the earliest Christians had a lot of competition for their man-god: that era was just chock-full of man-gods (many named Jesus!) running around making miracles and spouting anti-Roman sentiments, and there were plenty of other religions competing for souls who also had man-gods making miracles. It's not a surprise at all that the earliest Gospels had the fewest of these embellishments, while the later ones got more and more elaborate and convoluted as the religion had to make account for competitors' miracle stories and include more and more Old Testament references. How many wise-men lived and died at the same time and had similar stories that we just don't know about because their religion didn't make the cut or because their sources got melted into the Jesus myth of the New Testament?
When I follow the evidence, it's hard to see the entire Jesus story as anything but a gigantic mantle resting upon a very thin framework of fact, a huge body of myth plopped onto the shoulders of an otherwise unremarkable minor historical figure.
So did Jesus exist? Looking at the balance of evidence, that it is fair to say that plenty of men named Jesus lived and died around that general time and that one of them (or even several of them blended together) was likely the basis for the religion's beginnings. But it is laughable to go from there to saying that the New Testament's Messiah account is true when we can say with perfect assurance that most of the Gospels are fabrication. The issue isn't whether or not Jesus is real, but whether the Messiah account is; not if Jesus really lived, but which Jesus we're talking about when we ask that question--the real kernel of the actual man/men we know strangely next-to-nothing about or the Biblical construct of Jesus built up over centuries.
The life and resurrection of Jesus Christ are considered by most modern Christians to be the linchpin of their faith, but clearly neither was very important to many of the earliest Christians; some early believers didn't even believe he was a real person, and others denied that he'd really actually risen bodily from the dead (John Loftus even makes a good case for the Apostle Paul being one of those). It wasn't really until the Enlightenment that anybody really got interested in the Bible's actual historicity, but by then the floodgates had opened. The real question has become not "Did he exist as the Bible describes him?" because clearly he did not and indeed could not, but rather "Is it even important that he existed thusly?"
I say that it is of vital importance. If the specifics of his story aren't factual, then they are allegorical. And if Jesus' life is largely allegorical, then that makes me wonder what else in the Bible is allegorical. I leave it to readers to decide just how much power they wish to give allegory over their lives, but as for me, I feel it is perfectly safe to discard the Bible's bigoted, misogynistic, primitive claims and ignore its excessive and unreasonable demands and threats.